I listened to NCPR’s Brian Mann recent report about NYS DEC Forest Ranger staffing, and the great pressures on the static ranger staff resulting from so many emergency incidents. DEC Commissioner Seggos’ remarks appeared to be resistant to the need for additional Forest Rangers. He was quoted as saying that the entire DEC staff must rally to help to relieve the pressures on the Rangers and – I would add – on all natural resource professionals at the DEC. In other words, don’t worry members of the media, members of the public, we always do more with less.
In my experience, this Commissioner is very responsive to issues facing him and pays attention to detail. I also know he supports his people in the field. However, it was important for him to hear the support for more DEC Forest Rangers from local government representatives, like Wilmington Town Supervisor and Essex County Board of Supervisors chair Randy Preston. The supervisor was persistent because he knows what we all know: that the DEC Commissioner has no authority to increase the number of rangers, or foresters, or wildlife or fisheries, or operations or campground professionals. The urgent message that DEC natural resource and lands and forests and ranger personnel are at the breaking point must get to the Governor. Local government officials make excellent messengers.
The Commissioner can request, but the Governor’s Budget Division all too often rejects what is requested. The Governor’s Division of the Budget has maintained a flat-lined DEC personnel budget for a long time, and natural resource divisions have particularly been flatlined since the Great Recession – actually before that. Remember what happened to DEC Commissioner Grannis when he too publicly objected to the Budget Division’s devastating cuts to DEC non-personnel budgets in fiscal year 2010-2011. He was fired.
What follows is drawn from a piece I wrote in Adirondack Almanack in 2015 about DEC budgets, updated slightly. Little has changed.
During my first Adirondack conservation meeting, January of 1987, one of the top issues discussed by my board of directors was the pressure the Forest Preserve was under due to the limited State budgets and loss of DEC staff personnel. How were the hundreds of miles of state’s Forest Preserve boundaries to be surveyed and marked? How were the “forever wild” natural resources on the Forest Preserve to be properly cared for by so few foresters and rangers? Someone on my board (I was very much a greenhorn) had invited DEC Lands and Forests Director Robert Bathrick to our meeting to discuss the problem he faced caring for the Forest Preserve, and much else.
My board set the right, collegial tone with the DEC director: that these were shared problems; we all owned an undivided deed to the Forest Preserve, and therefore advocates like us needed good information in order to intelligently weigh in as much as possible – in concert with the DEC. After all, DEC was and still is the public’s custodian for the Forest Preserve, acting in the public’s interest.
Not that we didn’t question DEC’s choice of priorities even 31 years ago. The noted Adirondack guidebook author and advocate Barbara McMartin was among the most active members of my board in challenging DEC in its management and budgetary choices and decisions. Even then, Barbara was questioning why DEC paid so little attention to interesting hiking trails on Wild Forest – where most of the trails were designated and routed purely as snowmobile trails. That particular interest of hers continued throughout the rest of her life. If we want a Forest Preserve worthy of the name, she said, we must support it financially (and pay full taxes on it).
When Barbara McMartin spoke up in 1987, there were about 105 Forest Rangers in the field, not counting supervisors and administrators, to patrol and enforce the laws (and mark the boundaries) on maybe 2.8 million acres of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, and maybe half a million acres of State Forests. There were only a few conservation easements back then, maybe 20,000 acres. Let’s say 3.3 million acres in all.
In 2018, there are still only 105 field Forest Rangers to patrol and enforce the laws on 4.832 million acres of Forest Preserve (both Adirondack and Catskill Parks), State Forests, and Private Lands under Conservation Easement, or more than a 30% increase in protected acreage since 1987. About 85% of the increase comes in the form of private lands protected by a Conservation Easement. Easement lands have grown from roughly 20,000 acres in 1987 to approximately 800,000 acres today.
While the land base DEC cares for on our behalf may have grown 30+ %, the staffing has declined more than 25%. In 1995 there were 225 full time staff working for the Division of Lands and Forests – the Division responsible for the Forest Preserve, State Forests, and Easements. To the best of my knowledge, today there are about 158.
In the Adirondacks, Region 5 in Ray Brook, reports show that Lands and Forests staff are down by two-thirds, Fisheries down by half, and Wildlife down by two-thirds over the past 20 years.
The DEC Division of Operations, which oversees much of the work on the Forest Preserve and on the State Campgrounds had 122 personnel in 1995. Today, that division has about 50, or a drop off of 60%.
Looking at its operational budget, DEC’s budget receives less than $800,000 to oversee, care for and manage 4.8 million acres. That’s about sixteen cents per acre.
Call any DEC office these days about a natural resource problem in your home area and you face the reality behind these statistics. A hard working, skeletal staff attempts to do the job and respond to your concerns. DEC natural resource/forest preserve/forest ranger staffing and operating budgets are in deplorable shape. DEC staff does a remarkable job and, as Commissioner Seggos stressed on NCPR, constantly credit the volunteers, private sector and municipal support they receive in the form of labor and finances to keep up with some of the work load.
Barbara McMartin advocated in 1987 that the public should do two things at once: Thing one is push hard for DEC’s natural resources, wildlife, operations, and lands and forests budgets. Urge the Governor and his Budget Division to increase their personnel.
Thing two: question where DEC places its priorities. To build a single snowmobile community connector trail in the Adirondacks costs the DEC a great deal of its available resources. DEC personnel are reassigned from all over the State to help build them. DEC wants to build a 140-foot steel snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River as one small segment of a long connector, while an existing bridge and trail sits just upriver. These are big expenditures, based upon priorities and choices set by the Governor.
2019 is a time for all groups concerned with the outdoors to come together in a joint lobbying effort with the Governor and the new State Legislature to begin to ramp up DEC Forest Rangers and other personnel responsible for our wondrous natural resources.
Photo: A NYS DEC Forest Ranger leading a search and rescue operation. (DEC Photo)